*Warnings for racism, sexism, and rape.*
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic reminds me of Jordan Peele’s Get Out in that both involve escaping houses and creepy white people. Creepy white people, of course, make for excellent villains in horror films because, if you look back in history, a lot of the things they’ve done are already horrifying. Mexican Gothic takes a look at this topic. It centers around Noemí Taboada, who seeks out her sick cousin, Catalina, in Catalina’s new husband’s home. The husband, Virgil Doyle, lives in his family’s home, High Place, along with his rather terrifying relatives.
The Doyle family’s past is only a partial source of the book’s horror. The house and its occupants are infected with a fungus that grants prolonged life. By combining the fungus with the soul of one of his many wives, Howard Doyle created the gloom, a network of memories that haunt the house. The gloom also allows Howard to transfer his soul between bodies, granting him immortal life and the ability to perpetuate the past by overtaking his relatives’ futures. Both Noemí and Catalina are supposed to serve as new wives for the family since the Doyles’ attempts at marrying within the family are not producing live children.
It’s on this backdrop I would like to examine how Mexican Gothic uses the theme of glorifying the past. As a disclaimer, I am white, so some of the experiences of the protagonist are not my own, and I might miss some of the book’s nuances. Hopefully, this article can serve as a starting point for this discussion.
I would like to start with the concept of fairy tales as they are used throughout the story. Catalina loves them, so they make several appearances as context for Catalina’s thought process. Noemí decides that Catalina must think High Place is something out of a fairy tale and that the mysteriousness of her husband makes him seem like a prince rather than a creep. At one point, Noemí “[contemplates] the notion of enchantments that are never broken”, which feels like the perfect tie-in to the past (115). People tend to romanticize the past, skipping over inconvenient details to write a fairy tale that forces others to see what they want them to see. The Doyles seem like they could be characters out of a story—a tragic family living in a lonesome, misty manor—but through Noemí’s eyes, that appearance is peeled back and we see the horrors that lie underneath, the enchantment that seems inescapable.
The Doyles arrive in Mexico to mine silver, using up the natural resources of the land. Already we can see this is a colonial narrative: people coming and destroying the land, customs, and people of places that aren’t really theirs. Along with the Doyles comes their beliefs, their racism, and their sexism, all of which infect the area and people around them, much like the fungus does. The dead are dehumanized and buried without labels. This dehumanization of both family and strangers alike is the lens through which the Doyles view human life and is the main feature of their particular brand of colonization.
The gloom itself consists of the mind of one of Howard Doyle’s wives. Noemí only seems to see women in her visits to the gloom—besides a few intrusions from Virgil —suggesting that the creation of the gloom and the Doyles it’s tied to are the result of female labor. We know Doyle had a ridiculous number of wives, all of which existed to grant him children so that he can transfer his mind into them to continue his existence. The women in his life mean nothing else to him. His memorial to his wife Anges has only the word “Mother” to accompany her name and death date, suggesting that she was nothing more and that Doyle did not feel the need to put anything else (150). The constant occurrences of sexual harassment and assault throughout the book further this point. Throughout history, land is gendered as female (such as in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1), therefore taking resources becomes a sort of rape of the land. Howard and Virgil treat the women in their lives much like they might have treated their mines. Their actions show colonialism based around violence and destruction rather than in fairytale-like fantasies.
The Doyles’ servants are also dehumanized by the gloom, which takes away their individuality and controls them. They become pawns for history. Their lives are erased to serve a purpose that isn’t their own to construct false narratives. How the audience sees them is probably how the Doyles see everyone, but because of the gloom, we know that their states of being are created for the convenience of the Doyles. Without the gloom, the Doyles’ power vanishes; but instead, they continue to use the gloom to increase their power by ruining the lives of those around them. This, as I see it, is the essence of not only white privilege but any form of privilege: the process of causing pain to increase your own pleasure.
Mexican Gothic’s depiction of privilege, as an evil mushroom that infects the present and resurrects itself from the past, reveals the horror of systemic privilege, making it impossible to romanticize or ignore. Mexican Gothic is terrifying because of how real the story is. I don’t believe in immortal mushrooms, but I believe in the destruction that racism and sexism unleashes on society. I’m perhaps not the right person to be preaching this, as my life is tangled in privilege that I am still in the process of sorting out, but these are important topics people should be aware of, especially for the people who cause this pain. Fairytales are built on context and purpose. And we need to understand these purposes before we blindly spread their messages.